University Trustees Meddling Raises Questions About Possible Conflicts

Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University campus


Florida’s public universities have numerous outgoing board of trustee members and there has not yet been any indication of who will be replacing them. In fact, some board members are serving past their term and have been accused of hiring friends.

Ben Wilcox from Common Cause Florida, a government accountability group, said Florida law does not expressly dictate what happens when trustees continue in their post past their allotted term.

“Apparently, BOT members are allowed to serve after their terms are expired and I don’t see whether there’s any kind of end date for their terms,” Wilcox said.

Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) became one of the universities with an expired trustee who was causing strife among existing FAMU decision-makers.

“I can’t talk about what happens at other institutions, because I don’t know—though I am told there are similar concerns,” said George Cotton, former Vice President of Advancement at Florida A&M, “but at FAMU, not only are trustees involved in day-to-day operations, but they insert themselves wrongfully in attempts to steer contracts, to get people hired and get people fired. And when you don’t do it, they threaten you.”

Cotton and board member Chairman Kelvin Lawson have been at odds since Lawson threatened Cotton with his job if he did not move $3 million from auxiliary funds to the athletic department. This spat led to a number of resignations within the university’s administration.

University staff members, professors, and administrators have grown increasingly uncomfortable with how the trustees have become involved in, sometimes, day-to-day operations.

“It’s a very short-term, bottom-line kind of thing,” said Meera Sitharam, vice president of the faculty union at the University of Florida (UF). “And the more short-term, bottom line you become, the more top-down you become, the more an army-like structure comes into play.”

Sitharam continued by advocating for term limits for the trustees and possibly the need for trustees from different backgrounds to prevent conflicts of interest.

“There’s got to be term limits,” she said. “Even if you can’t directly pinpoint a conflict of interest…it could be that people, once they reach a certain age…they’re drunk with their own power. I can just make a text to the president of the University of Florida…and I don’t have to consult with my other board members.”

Last month, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (D) accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of a pay-to-play scheme for trustee appointments. The specific accusation was that prospective university board of trustee members would have to donate $100,000 to his campaign. In turn, he would grant appointments to university boards.

“Our current board of trustees across our state were required to give a campaign contribution to Ron DeSantis, the amount of $100,000,” Fried said in a Democrat town hall. “And if they didn’t give him the campaign contribution they were not reappointed to the boards. That is what we are dealing with here in the state of Florida under this governor.”

Numerous media outlets have reported on the accusation and found there to be “no proof.”

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Grant Holcomb is a reporter at the Florida Capital Star and the Star News Network. Follow Grant on Twitter and direct message tips.
Photo “Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University campus” by Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University.

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